May 26, 2017

‘Give them a chance’: Prison ministry mentor helps woman, once in prison, make return to society

The bond between Anna Brown-Mitchell, left, of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis and Chanita Dawson has grown strong as Anna has helped Chanita make a new life after Chanita served her time for a non-violent crime. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The bond between Anna Brown-Mitchell, left, of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis and Chanita Dawson has grown strong as Anna has helped Chanita make a new life after Chanita served her time for a non-violent crime. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Third in an occasional series

The only thing better than the birthday party that Anna Brown-Mitchell threw for Chanita Dawson is the gift she has given her.

Chanita’s face glows as she shares her memories of her party on Sept. 18, 2016: how her birthday cake was huge, how a long table overflowed with all kinds of food, and how all the people there laughed, sang and enjoyed each other on a day that marked a life-changing time for her.

After all, this was more than the celebration of her 38th birthday.

It was also the celebration of her first birthday since she completed a nearly four-year sentence for committing a non‑violent, drug-related crime.

For Chanita, the birthday party represented what she hoped would be a new beginning to her life.

“It was like a blessing,” she recalls on a recent morning in May. “I knew I had to pay for the consequences of what I had done. I knew I had to better myself to not get in that position again.”

Then there is the blessing of Anna, the 67-year-old member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis. She not only threw the party for Chanita, she has also committed to being there for her as she continues to try to make a new life for herself and her two children.

That’s the gift that Chanita treasures most.

“Anna shows me there’s another part of life,” Chanita says. “She has faith in me. She lifts me up. She lets me know I can do things. I still have trials and tribulations every day, but I fight them.”

‘Having an open heart’

The bond between Chanita and Anna represents one of the main goals of the archdiocese’s prison ministry task force—a group that met regularly in 2016 to formulate a plan to help parishes, individuals and the archdiocese as a whole make an even deeper commitment to prison ministry.

The archdiocese sees the critical value of helping people as they re-enter society after being imprisoned, says Lynne Weisenbach, the chairperson of the task force and a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis.

A key element of this goal involves working with companies to provide employment opportunities.

“Without a job, it is nearly impossible to establish a new life and become productive citizens. However, nearly 75 percent of Hoosier employers are reluctant or simply refuse to hire ex-offenders,” the task force’s final report noted. “When such individuals are unemployed, their chances of returning to prison are 60 percent.”

Another emphasis focuses on establishing connections with parishes and the St. Vincent de Paul Society to provide material needs to assist people during this time.

And, perhaps most importantly, there’s the focus of training members of the archdiocese as potential mentors to help people make the transition from prison to re-entering society.

That emphasis has been embraced by Anna.

“I try to make a difference in my sphere of life,” she says. “We just spent a lot of time reading about the [Holy] Year of Mercy. Being a Christian is about having an open heart. It’s about helping—and being needed and wanted.”

Anna’s approach to Chanita stems from two major influences in her own family’s life—one inspirational, and the other incredibly difficult, at least initially.

‘She gives me the love I’ve needed’

“I grew up in a large Catholic family—one of nine kids—on a dairy farm in northern Illinois,” Anna says. “I helped my dad milk cows every day from the time I was 12 until I left home for college. My father loved us in a very quiet way, and he worked hard for us. My mother helped others in a lot of ways. She was our role model for serving others. When she died, 700 people came to her visitation. Everyone thought she was an angel.

“There was always an extra plate on the table and an extra bed if we wanted to bring somebody home. They could stay overnight, and sometimes they stayed a year. We had 13 foster kids along the way.”

That approach to life fuels Anna’s approach to helping Chanita. So does the imprisonment of one of her brothers.

“He was in prison for five years,” Anna says, preferring to not share the nature of his crime. “We all made trips down to see him, and we became familiar with prison systems and the people. We heard the stories and met the people. It just laid the seeds for what I’m trying to do.”

She pauses for a moment and then she adds, “My brother changed his life for the better. He took care of my dad when he was dying.”

Anna tries to be that extra element of family for Chanita and her 18-year-old daughter and her 8-year-old son.

Anna helped Chanita find the home she is renting. Anna and her husband Ed have helped to provide things for the home. So have their friends. Anna’s son also mows the grass for Chanita, who works long hours as a housekeeper at a downtown Indianapolis hotel—which leads Anna to occasionally stay with Chanita’s son.

“She supports me a lot,” Chanita says. “If I’m going through something, she listens. She’s a positive person. There have been walls all through my life. She helps me knock them down. I don’t have an education, but I’m going to school now to get my GED [high school graduation equivalency].”

As she talks, Chanita moves closer to Anna, putting her left arm around Anna’s shoulders. Soon, the two women are also holding hands.

“She explains things to me when I get scared,” Chanita says. “She gives me the love I’ve needed all my life.”

‘Give them a chance’

Their relationship has also led Chanita to become closer to God.

Anna has invited Chanita to Mass at St. Monica Church, and Chanita has attended when her work schedule allows. Chanita says she also reads the Bible every day, and participates in a Bible study every Thursday.

“I describe my relationship with God as being real good, but it can get much better,” she says.

Anna says she has also grown spiritually from their connection, insisting that the Holy Spirit has been present in her efforts to get to know and help Chanita. It’s why she encourages people to become involved in prison ministry, especially as mentors to those making the transition from prison to society.

“Give them a chance and trust your instincts,” Anna says. “There are a lot of people scared of a prison door, but there are people inside those orange prison uniforms. Many of them have never been shown love and acceptance. They behave differently when you show them that love and acceptance. But it takes time.”

Chanita knows the difference that Anna has made in her life.

“It helps you. It’s a beautiful thing,” Chanita says. “Everybody needs someone when the mind is a little weak. I don’t want my life to be horrible.”

She smiles at Anna and adds, “I know I have somebody right here who loves me hard.”
 

(The archdiocese will host a Corrections Ministry Retreat & Conference from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Oct. 28 at St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus. All volunteers involved with prison and jail ministry are invited, as are any persons interested in learning more about these ministries. The day will begin with a reflection and celebration of Mass. For more information about this day of prayer, support and education from experts in corrections ministry, contact Deacon Michael Braun at mbraun@archindy.org.)

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